Defense Minister Barak’s interview with Ari Shavit had the usual hallmarks of a Barak interview: a broad overview of strategic and political issues, a fair analysis available to the lay person, with as much details as a person in that position can allow to dispense. The unfortunate choice to interview anonymously with clues too thin to disguise his identity has been aptly reprimanded by Israel’s daily newspaper review, published on “The Seventh Eye” website, and were deciphered for those not familiar with Barak stereotypes by Noam Sheizaf. English version (limited to subscribers) is available here. I will be using the Hebrew original as my reference. Translations are my own. I will add that in my opinion Ari Shavit is a poor analyst with a debilitating penchant for hysteria and dramatization. Still, as a mouthpiece of the Defense Minister he did a good job, and asked important questions, without wasting time on trivialities that other journalists often hand to Barak allowing him to digress to non-issues. The entire interview, as printed, is succinct and of relevance. I think it is generally rare to find politicians who engage in analysis as part of their public discourse in such a frank manner, and Barak should be commended for it. For all his faults, this trait of his should be cherished while we have it. Given this trait of Barak, Shavit’s task was fairly simple, but I sensed that his questions did push Barak to say a little more, to the benefit of all readers.
The significance of the interview lies in two important explanations: Barak provided an explanation for the growing urgency for an attack in Israel, and he supplied a larger strategic-political context of such an attack, that could justify it politically, beyond the issue of nuclear power in itself. I should stress that my appreciation of Barak for sharing his analysis and motives should not be equated with endorsement. I will explain my contentions after summarizing Barak’s view.
Urgency, Israel vs. US: While Barak believes that a nuclear Iran will bring a greater imbalance to the world, and as such will be dangerous for the US, too, Iran poses a more direct threat on Israel. More importantly, however, is that the US can afford to wait another year, because it has greater power. Israel will be unable to act soon.
The moment in which Israel will be incapable is approaching. As far as the Americans are concerned, the Iranians are not even near the space of imperviousness. Because the Americans have bigger bombers and bigger bombs and the ability to repeat the attack several times. But for us, Iran might enter the space of imperviousness very soon. And when that happens, it will mean delegating to the United States something that is crucial to our existence. The State of Israel cannot afford that. It cannot entrust the responsibility to its security and its future even in the hands of its best and most-faithful allies.
Barak also dismissed the idea that the US will explicitly commit to attacking Iran within a year, if all else fails. He claimed that the US president does not know what will happen and what will be in six months, and therefore is incapable of truly making such a commitment. It sounded as if Barak was responding to specific suggestions, but I am not aware of who raised them. To be sure, such suggestions were raised by those who oppose an attack. It should also be noted that Barak commended the Obama administration as doing more through sanctions and diplomacy against a nuclearization of Iran than any former administration. While he conceded that the Americans can inflict much more damage on the Iranians than Israel can, it also sounded that he understands and accepts the conditions that prohibit the US from engaging in a military operation at this point.
The Bomb/Democracy entanglement: The interview begins with Barak naming four negative implications of an Iranian nuclear bomb: (a) It will cause a chain reaction, with nuclear arm races by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and more; (b) this proliferation (esp. in unstable countries) will lead to leakage of nuclear arms into the hands of non-state terrorist organizations; (c) it will give Iran a deterrent advantage against its neighbors; (d) it will furnish the Islamic regime with political strength, thus forestalling trends of democratization in the region.
In regards to the final point, Barak seems to delineate an intertwined relationship: the nuclear bomb will strengthen the Ayatollah regime, while a democratization of Iran will stall or annul Iran’s nuclear plans. Thus he says, in regards to the purpose of an Israeli operation:
The question that needs to be asked is what is the purpose of the operation. We are not deluding ourselves: our goal is not to eradicate the Iranian nuclear plan. But it is imperative to understand that the real story is the competition between the nuclearization of Iran and the fall of the current rule of the Ayatollahs in Iran. If we succeed in postponing the nuclear plan in six, eight or ten years, there is a good chance that the regime will not survive until the critical moment. So the goal is a delay. But even if you are right and the delay caused by an Israeli operation will only be of two years, that is not the end of the story. The sanctions will be removed for a while [because Israel will be seen as the aggressor, discussed previously in the interview –AA], but will later be returned, because the basic interest of the leading countries in the world to stop Iran will remain. For that reason the political pressure on Iran and the intelligence campaign against it will also be renewed. Ultimately, the combination of all these elements together will achieve the desired goal. The chance that the regime will collapse will increase significantly before Iran is nuclearized.
Aftermath of attack: the final lines of the last quote begin to touch on the possible aftermath of the attack. Barak fiercely rejects the allegations that Israel is willingly entering a war it cannot win to draw the US into a war it can win but does not want to fight. Anyone who has read Balaban’s Interpreting Conflict (Peter Lang, 2005), which is crucial for understanding Barak and also very useful for understanding various Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, will be able to supply Barak’s own response with the appropriate political analysis: a politician does not reach a decision based on the desired outcome, but takes into account other outcomes as well. Barak certainly realizes the benefits in store if the US decides to get involved, but his support of an attack must take into consideration other results, and especially the circumstances that will prohibit the White House from entering such a venture at this point in time. Interestingly, however, Barak does not anticipate a full-scale war with Iran. A harsh retaliation from Iran might drag the US to respond, despite its preference to stand aside. Therefore, while some retaliation is to be expected, perhaps in the form of Hamas or Hezbollah attacks from the north and south, Barak seems to assume (but not in a complacent manner, in any way) that the response will be limited, contrary to some very grave predictions:
What characterizes the Iranians all along is caution and patience. No-one knows what they will do if attacked. But based on past behavior, it is more likely that they will prefer to reinforce their safety systems even more, and to proceed with even greater caution. The will also fear an American intervention. While Israel can only perform a surgical operation to delay their nuclearization , the United States can operate in a way that will threaten the stability of the regime.
Response and dissent: I agree with much of what Barak said. One should not heed ultra-nationalist voices of pride, as if Israel can act in isolation or with disregard to other countries. Israel’s reliance on its alliance with the US is a major component of its security strategy, but cannot become the sole component.
We live in an Orwellian world, where sometimes the peacemaker needs to use his weapons. It does not seem to me improbable that among those who oppose an attack there are some who realize this means Iran will remain a backward country led by fundamentalists. At the same time, one should not expect too many peace or democracy opportunities to arise from military action. This sort of strategy has a limited affect, due to the limited (and violent) vocabulary of its language.
I think Barak’s arguments are wrong based on two fallacies: the first is the chain reaction, which he attributes solely to Iran’s attainment of nuclear weapons. It is unclear why Turkey, Saudi-Arabia, Egypt and others need to wait for a nuclearization of Iran for this race to begin. One obvious response to that is that they will have an excuse (especially Saudi-Arabia and Turkey, being directly threatened by Iran’s weapons). Another reason is perhaps that if they see the US does not prevent a nuclearization of Iran they will consider it an assurance for themselves, whereas now they are “sitting it out,” or even fearful of estranging the US. However, a US attack on Iran can prevent it from attacking other countries, since it cannot commit to bombing nuclear facilities every other year. The war in Iraq is one of the main causes for the US’s hesitation of intervention at this point, and an attack on Iran will similarly forestall future attacks. There is an accumulative element here, which the US cannot disregard. Therefore, a US attack on Iran can possibly motivate a new nuclear plan by another power, rather than discourage it.
This also leads to the second, and major fallacy of Barak’s argument: his silence on Israel’s own nuclear power. The US will be unable to bomb every nuclear plant in the Middle-East and continue to ignore Dimona. As long as Israel has nuclear weapons, it affords every Arab country with a readily-prepared motivation, in search of a balance of terror. Barak’s outlined strategy would have made much more sense if it was accompanied with willingness to denuclearize Israel, or at least to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to allow IAEA inspectors in Israel. Without such measures, the shadow of a nuclear Middle-East, against which Barak warns and rightly so, will continue to hover over our heads.
It should be noted, in this context, that a denuclearization of Israel does not weaken it significantly, just as the Arab claims for a quest of balance with Israel are insincere. Barak calls attention to this when alluding to a decade-old speech by Iranian leader Rafsanjani:
He [Rafsanjani – AA] says there is no balance between the Muslim World and Israel, and therefore there will also be no balance of terror. Israel is not a super-power holding an area of a continent. It is not even Japan, which became a world power only 15 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Israel is a one-bomb state. One atom bomb will make Israel cease being what it is and what it was intended to be. One bomb is sufficient to end the Zionist story. On the other hand, says Rafsanjani, the Muslim World has one and a half billion people and dozens of countries. Even if Israel delivers a severe blow to the country that attacked it, Islam will endure. A nuclear will not bring about the disappearance of the Muslim World, but will be detrimental to Israel.
It is unclear whether Barak accepts this analysis of Rafsanjani, but I nevertheless laud him for raising it in Israeli media. I have said it on several occasions: Israel cannot win a nuclear war, and therefore has no need for nuclear weapons (for example, here). The only purpose the nuclear weapons serve now is as justification for other countries in the Middle-East to pursue nuclear power. To improve its strategic as well as its moral stance in the region and in the international arena, Israel should voluntarily disarm itself from nuclear weapons, while continuing to advocate for a denuclearized Middle East. Diplomatic and military efforts will then be justified and balanced.
As a side-point, it is also interesting to note that Barak wishes for a change of regime in Iran, and considers it a possible advantage for Israel. Unlike the common Israeli fears from the Arab Spring, the “Persian Summer” – as Barak labeled his wishful thinking – is anticipated to bring democracy since it will be a response to an already Islamist regime. If this is true, the rise of Islamism in other Arab countries (currently in Egypt, and possibly also in Syria in a still foreseeable future) might be a phase, of various durations, but notwithstanding a mere phase en route to democracy. One is allowed to hope. But the fact that was considered for many years the only democracy in the Middle East is to date the only country in the region to have nuclear bombs still leaves room for doubt regarding the linkage that Barak offers between the regime and its nuclear plan. The recent changes in the Middle East likewise prove that a change of regime is merely one step. The goals and tasks a regime sets for itself are decisive. The Israeli government should not stop short of preventing a nuclearization of Iran, and pursue a wider goal of a denuclearization of the region. It certainly has the power as well as the incentive to lead in this direction.
In addition to the interview with Ehud Barak cited above, I have also benefitted from the following studies in preparation of my article:
Sherrill, Clifton W. “Why Iran Wants the Bomb and What It Means for US Policy.” Nonproliferation Review 19.1 (2012): 31-49.
Morton, Jeffrey S. and Nicole Shortt. “The Arab Spring: Implications for Israeli Security.” Mediterranean Quarterly 23.3 (2012): 34-51.